Snow in Science, Culture, and Climate

Snow knives

Inuit people building a snow house with loaded sleds in the background
Snow knives are important tools in cutting blocks of hard, wind slab snow to construct shelters. Photo from Canadian Museum of History 37011 on Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-4.0 International)

Contrary to popular belief, Alaska Native peoples don’t typically make or live in “igloos” built of snow. (In fact, the Iñupiaq word iglu simply means “house.”) Snow houses were traditionally used by Inuit peoples in areas of the central Canadian Arctic and Greenland, however, and they are occasionally used as temporary shelters today by hunters and other winter travelers throughout the far North.

Because igloos are constructed of hard blocks of snow, they can only be made in areas where snow is dense and hard-packed by consistent windy conditions. You won’t see a lot of snow knives from the Dene (Athabascan) peoples of interior Alaska where soft, deep, fluffy snow is the norm.

Snow knives were critical tools for creating shelters in the past, and they remain important in the North for for cutting hard-packed snow for other purposes, including use by snow scientists. Prior to the widespread shift to a cash economy and availability of commercially made goods, snow knives, like other traditional tools, were made of materials such as antler and bone.

long-bladed knife carved out of a single piece of caribou antler

Suuviuaqtot (snow knife) – This snow knife was made of caribou antler by Nunamiut Iñupiaq Simon Paneak of Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska. The Western Arctic Caribou Herd still passes through the Anaktuvuk Pass area during their annual migration between winter and summer ranges.

Photo courtesy of the University of Alaska Museum of the North UAM.EH.UA71-067-0002

metal snow knife with bone(?) handle

This metal-bladed snow knife dating from 1910-1914 was used by the Nunatsiarmiut or Nunavimiut First Nations people of Quebec and Nunavut, Canada. Although the knife was was not made and used by Alaska Native peoples, the Iñupiat of northern coastal Alaska have traditionally inhabited similar environments and share some similar elements of material culture, such as tools.

Object on display at the Royal Ontario Museum. Photo by Daderot on Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-1.0)

Yaaruin (“story knife”) – Story knives, like this one from the Central Yup’ik people of the Togiak River in Alaska, were not tools for working but a traditional girls’ toys. Often intricately carved and decorated, story knives were used to carve pictures (“knife stories”) in dirt or snow, and playmates would try to guess what was drawn. As the owner of the story knife grew older, she would give it away to a younger girl.

Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History E127393